College of Science; Research

Unexpectedly, fruit flies help a graduate student spread her wings


Rebecca MacPherson stands next to a van.
Rebecca MacPherson stands outside a mobile lab used by the GGC to teach genetics to students throughout the state.

GREENWOOD, S.C. – I knew from the look on their faces that they didn’t believe me.

“Fruit flies?” they asked incredulously.

I had just told my grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins that I would be spending the next five years of my life – the prime of my 20s, the pinnacle of my academic career thus far – working on the genetics of a pest that is brought home on bananas from the grocery store. I took their disbelief as a challenge; it was now my mission to tell them why a Ph.D. on fruit fly genetics was relevant to the study of human health.

Fruit flies, or Drosophila melanogaster, are incredibly important to biological research. Fruit flies share with humans about 75% of all genes that cause human disease. Additionally, scientists can use fruit flies to make discoveries that are ethically or financially impossible to make in humans. After discussing these topics with my family, including the six Nobel prizes awarded to scientists who had worked with fruit flies, my relatives realized that I was actually pursuing something impactful.

Our conversations about genetics reminded me of something important – I love to teach. However, I was about to enroll in a graduate curriculum that did not offer me a teaching opportunity. I was crushed. Given my passion for outreach and teaching, I knew I needed to find another way to stay involved with genetics education if I was going to make it through graduate school.

Rebecca MacPherson teaches students about genetics in the classroom.
Rebecca MacPherson teaches high school students from Greenwood, S.C., and beyond during the Junior Genetics Scholars Camp held at the Greenwood Genetics Center.

A few months later, I was standing at the head of a classroom at the Clemson Center for Human Genetics. The room was filled with seventh- through 12th-grade students and their parents from a local home-school group. A parent had recently reached out, wondering if I could talk to the students about genetics, and I had leapt at the opportunity. Initially I was worried about connecting with these students because I was short on time and had never taught in a formal setting. However, these fears quickly faded when I saw a transformation in one of the middle-schoolers that I’ll never forget. She started out quiet at the beginning of the lesson, but as she learned more her eyes opened wide. The wheels in her head were turning rapidly, and she began to ask question after question until we ran out of time. She truly “got it,” and nothing has encouraged me more.

A graduate degree is a long and demanding process. Now in my third year, I’ve come to realize that in order to be successful in graduate school, a student has to find the energy and motivation to press on despite occasional discouragements. Some students are fueled by the excitement of new discoveries, but these occur too rarely to sustain me. Personally remembering how genetic disease has affected my family, talking about genetics to others, and watching my students “get it” keeps me going. Moments of encouragement – gleaned from seeing students light up – keep me motivated and further my passion for genetics education and outreach.

Students study fruit flies
During the recent Junior Genetics Scholars Camp, students Emily Martin (left) of Piedmont and Lila Bagley of Irmo study the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

As a graduate student at the Clemson Center for Human Genetics, I have been able to foster research and outreach collaborations with the Greenwood Genetic Center. The GGC’s Division of Education offers excellent genetics education activities directly to seventh- through 12th-grade students across South Carolina. I have traveled with their mobile labs, partnered with GGC education instructors to create fruit fly activities for students and worked with local science teachers to help bring genetics into their classrooms. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to teach genetics to students across multiple backgrounds, ages and geographic locations.

Each summer, the GGC education department offers the Junior Genetics Scholars Camp to high school students. Participants are introduced to GGC faculty and staff and are exposed to real-world laboratory activities, including some that involve fruit flies. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time teaching about fruit flies, it is that I never know how a student will react to seeing a fruit fly in a laboratory environment. Perhaps the students’ reactions stem from the contradiction between a sterile space and a “gross” insect, or perhaps the idea of studying an insect is as ludicrous for the students as it was initially for my family. Either way, many students are overcome by curiosity and excitement, and they often ask me humorous questions. Due to its frequency, a question about what I name my fruit flies (no, I don’t name my flies) no longer startles me. However, I’m still surprised by questions about fruit fly dreams, the biggest fruit fly ever, and if a fruit fly can swim. Students’ excitement about fruit flies also manifests into rapid shouting, where the students provide me updates about the movement of individual flies like sports commentators describing the action on the field. And although some students remain quiet throughout the activity, it is rare that I do not see a smile on their faces as they leave the classroom.

Unexpectedly, the lack of explicit teaching opportunities in my graduate curriculum has been a blessing, forcing me to go out and create opportunities for myself and work in the areas of education I most enjoy. I have successfully been able to teach across a range of ages and educational environments, something I would not have obtained as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate classroom. Not only have I found in-person education opportunities, but through volunteering at local science fairs, working with outreach programs like Skype a Scientist, and attending formal science communication workshops such as ComSciCon, I have further broadened my scientific outreach and education experiences.

Rebecca MacPherson conducts her research.
Rebecca MacPherson studies Drosophila melanogaster by individually placing the fruit flies into testing chambers.

Looking back over the first half of my graduate career, I’ve realized that some things never change. For example, I will always have to justify why I’m spending five years of my life studying the genetics of a pesky little insect. But hey, thanks to my outreach and education experiences, I’d like to think I’m at least a little better at justifying it than I used to be.

About the author

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Rebecca MacPherson graduated from Clemson University in 2018 with a B.S. in genetics and minors in microbiology and psychology. She completed departmental and general honors from the Clemson University Honors College and worked on a variety of research projects during her undergraduate years, including canine genetics, eukaryotic pathogens, synthetic biology, and cancer biology. She started her Ph.D. in genetics in the fall of 2018 at the Clemson Center for Human Genetics under the mentorship of renowned geneticist Trudy Mackay.

About the Clemson University Center for Human Genetics

The Clemson University Center for Human Genetics is housed in Self Regional Hall, a state-of-the-art research and educational facility located in Greenwood, South Carolina. Research in the center focuses on genomic, computational and comparative genetic approaches to gain insights in genetic and environmental risk factors for human diseases. The center promotes a collaborative interdisciplinary environment that involves faculty in Self Regional Hall and affiliated members from the College of Science’s departments of biological sciences and genetics and biochemistry and school of mathematical and statistical sciences on the main Clemson University campus. The Center for Human Genetics actively engages regional, national and international partnerships and provides excellent opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral research.

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